Film Review: The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce Stromu Rajských Jíme) 1969
By Matthew Revert
We wake up into a world of art – art that permeates every facet of the life we’re enslaved to. It’s there, lying in wait, growing in power via the act of discovery. Some of us actively seek this art out, hoping for a moment of transformation – a moment of pure experience. Discovering art can be an addiction, occupying your waking moments totally. Unlike most addictions however, with art, the dragon you chase can be recaptured. Rather than eluding you, art’s first high leads one toward greater highs. If you keep looking, you will keep finding.
I am often struck by the idea that I’m yet to see the greatest movie I’ll ever see. No matter how many films I watch – no matter how deep I plunge, I never come close the reaching the bottom of this fabulous pool. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been deeply immersed in Vera Chytilová’s, ‘Ovoce Stromu Rajských Jíme’ (The Fruit of Paradise), which was her followup film to ‘Daisies’. Anyone who knows me will tell you that ‘Daisies’ is a film that I hold very near and dear to me. I rate it as one of my all-time favourites and am still stunned with each subsequent viewing. With ‘Daisies’, Chytilová proved that a new cinematic language was possible. It taught me to expect more from the films I watched ever after. Despite being advised to, I avoided watching ‘The Fruit of Paradise’. Apart from not being readily available, I was also reluctant to dilute the near-sacred relationship I had with ‘Daisies’. The trouble now is, that having watched ‘The Fruit of Paradise’, my relationship with ‘Daisies’ has been compromised… you see, I think ‘The Fruit of Paradise’ is actually a better film.
‘The Fruit of Paradise’ was released in 1969, which was the latter period of the Czech New Wave. After this film, Chytilová was banned from making movies for 8 years thanks to a harsh political regime that aimed to stifle artistic dissent. The films made after this period of censorship never managed to attain the true originality and brilliance of her pre-censorship years. Had she not been forced to take such a hiatus, who knows what may have developed. It is a great injustice that the world was robbed of such a talent in the prime of her creative life. The society her art was designed to help set free was the same society that successfully imprisoned her art.
‘Daisies’ boasted an irreverent, wildly inventive visual style – it was punk before punk. Upon watching ‘The Fruit of Paradise’, we are rewarded with a visual style equally as inventive, but more mature and restrained. The opening sequence, depicting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is one of the most stunning passages of film I’ve ever seen. We watch Adam and Eve wandering naked through a tapestry of organic textures and colours. The breathtaking musique concrete score of Zdenek Liska forming a perfect unity with the visuals. This opening sequence could sit as a standalone short film. I have uploaded this clip to YouTube, as it will do more than my words ever could.
It is after this that we are introduced to the narrative proper (although the term ‘narrative’ has to be applied quite loosely here). Eva and Josef, who are our modern-day Adam and Eve, are sitting beneath a tree when an apple falls from above. From nearby lurks our modern serpent, Robert, who, as we will discover, is never far away. At this stage the biblical inferences are strong, and one could be forgiven for expecting this will eventuate as an idiosyncratic re-telling of the fable, but it is my assertion that, although used allegorically, this is completely incorrect. Eva and Josef are a married couple. Eva is initially portrayed as the obedient wife, fetching food for her lethargic husband and conducting herself with naivety. Although it isn’t made clear, the two seem to be attending a retreat of some sort, along with the outwardly charming, Robert. Eva’s possession of the fallen apple attracts the attention of Robert while Josef sleeps. Eva takes a bite from the apple, but her husband refuses.
And it is with this that we are introduced to our three main characters and the unnerving dynamic between them can unfold. Intrigued by Robert’s whimsical, flippant attitude to the world around him, Eva begins a shy pursuit – interested, at first, more in being a spectator to the action than an active player. While searching for food amid the wild world around her, Eva finds that Robert has dropped his briefcase and sets out to return it to him. For several reasons, I believe this briefcase to be the true apple of knowledge – reasons which I’ll discuss shortly. Eva discovers this forbidden briefcase at several points throughout the first half of the film.
This dance between Eva and Robert continues for some time. Robert is reticent to approach Eva, sensing something in her that he doesn’t have to confront in the countless other women he pursues. If we are to view Robert as the serpent, he is not one comfortable about giving up his knowledge. Eva’s drive toward the mystery of Robert is based on an innate sense that this man is in possession of something beyond her experience. It is important to note the re-occurring motif of the peacock. It’s call is the first sound we hear as the movie begins, and this call will punctuate the film throughout. Symbolically the peacock represents immortality. Its heavy presence in this film suggests that the knowledge about to be imparted upon Eva will extend beyond her, upsetting the world order.
The relationship between Eva and her husband, Josef depicts a status quo where the established order is comfortable yet servile and unfulfilling. Eva and Josef conduct themselves more as siblings than lovers. The mysterious sexuality of Robert pulls Eva away from her husband and one senses that none of the parties involved know exactly why. Eva continues to watch from afar as Robert engages in various seductions, feeling intensifying excitement. Each time Eva attempts to alter the dynamic and pursue Robert, he is overcome with anxiety and discomfort. Robert is clearly a man, ensconced in traditional masculine values who is unsure how to react to a woman who takes the active role. Eva is the antithesis of the sexual vixen. Her advances are the result of exuberance and curiosity. Her sexuality isn’t imposed upon her by the male gaze, rather it originates from within and radiates outward.
This dance occupies the first half of the film. Eva exists in an embryonic state, moving ever closer to her birth. This culminates in a scene where all members of the resort have congregated on the beach to participate in an aimless game involving a balloon and heavy petting. Eva, the only person not participating, sits off to the side, watching the others engage, including her husband who is flirting and wrestling with other women, completely unconcerned that he does so under his wife’s gaze. Eva is also unconcerned by her husband’s physical desire to be with these women. Decked in a crimson red robe, Robert is (of course) the leader of this game, inspiring the lust of those around him. When sand gets in his eye, he reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief and upon extraction, the key to his room falls out. The only person aware of this is Eva, who retrieves the key and decides to pay Robert’s room an unsolicited visit. The scene that follows is the turning point of the film – it is the true birth of Eva.
I spent a fair bit of time reading up about this film before writing this review. In so doing, I became aware of a frustrating trend. People have been unwilling to provide an interpretation of this film – some reviews have actively advised that you read nothing into it. It concerns me that one should view a film so rich in symbolism with superficial intent. There has also been a tendency to avoid prescribing feminist values upon the narrative, which in my mind is a mistake and detracts from so much of its power. ‘Daisies’ was unapologetic in its exploration of feminist ideas and was the better for it. ‘The Fruit of Paradise’, while not as overt, contains a feminist message that is, in my mind, even more powerful and revelatory.
When Eva opens Robert’s briefcase, she changes. The order of the world, and her place within it, becomes known to her and the dynamic established in the film’s first half is upset. The briefcase is the apple of knowledge that reveals the ‘truth’. Chytilová has presented us with a patriarchal order wherein women are subservient playthings in a world made for men. This is a role that both genders have embodied and a role that Eva, from the beginning, is placed outside of. Using the Adam and Eve myth as an allegorical representation of gender roles is ingenious when one considers the patriarchy established by the religion responsible for the myth. Even the briefcase that becomes Eva’s enlightenment is a symbol of masculinity. In the parlance of the narrative, the contents of the briefcase posits Robert as a potential killer and Eva as a potential victim, but this is the least of the briefcase’s significance.
From this point, Eva becomes aware of the sexuality that exists within her and, more importantly, of the effect this sexuality has on those around her. Robert no longer actively avoids her because he knows that she has changed. His pursuit has as much to do with Eva’s sexuality as it does with his desire to keep the secret hidden. Josef’s attitude toward Eva begins to change too and, perhaps for the first time, he experiences jealousy at the new attention afforded to his wife. Throughout this, Eva struggles with the revelation she now knows, and her desire not to know. The light Chytilová shed upon the power struggles that exist between man and woman isn’t a pretty one. Eva finds that she can manipulate the actions of the men around her with her new-found self-awareness. The superficial confidence of the men melts away with the slightest glance, leaving them flailing, trying to reestablish purchase on their masculinity.
The commentary Chytilová is making isn’t quite as scathing as it sounds. Men aren’t painted with an unfair brush, rather they’re portrayed as (rightfully) trapped, just like women. Each have become enslaved to history and are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. This film is a clarion call for self-awareness on both sides of the gender equation. Eva learns the truth about the power she possesses but wishes she hadn’t. A scene toward the end of the film shows her crying, wishing to be freed from the horror of the truth. This is the painful birth that leads to change.
Beyond my very particular interpretation of the film (and I may be completely wrong), there is so much to love about ‘The Fruit of Paradise’ on an aesthetic level. The set design is nature itself, with the bulk of shots taking place within intricate organic textures. There is an emphasis on animals and natural food (food is a recurring motif throughout much of the Czech New Wave). The characters that populate the film are joined with nature, often covered in dirt, water, sand and foliage. The balance Chytilová strikes between humans and nature embodies the balance sought between the genders.
Special mention must also be made of Zdenek Liska breathtaking score. Utilising musique concrete techniques and choral arrangements, it is a component to ‘The Fruit of Paradise’ impossible to ignore. The score refuses to take a passive role and instead, actively engages with the visuals. Movements on camera are synchronised with the sound perfectly. When Eva sweeps her hand through water, each movement is heralded by aural clatter. This active, synchronicity is a technique Chytilová adopted in ‘Daisies’, and on ‘The Fruit of paradise’ it has been refined and even more seamlessly integrated. It bolsters the total experience of the film, overwhelming as many of your senses as possible.
Because ‘The Fruit of Paradise’ excels in so many different areas, it can be hard to take in at first. It’s for this reason that many may wish to avoid interpretation and just embrace the experience. If you’re willing to peel the exterior back just a bit, prepare yourself for a universe of writhing symbolism and layered meanings. Like the greatest artists, Chytilová holds up a mirror, forcing us to see a version of ourselves stripped bare. It is the rarest gift – equal parts terrifying and rewarding. ‘The Fruit of Paradise’ is another dragon captured, and one of the greatest films I have had the sincere pleasure of watching.